The son of Maximilian Ullmann, a native of Jihlava (Iglau), Bohemia, then part of Austria-Hungary, and Malwine Ullmann (born Bilitzer), a Vienna native, Viktor was born on 1 January 1898 in Cieszyn (Teschen), now Poland, in Silesia, where, on 27 January, he was baptised. His parents, both of Jewish descent, had married in 1895 at a synagogue in Vienna, yet the next year Maximilian Ullmann, so as to be able to pursue a career as an Austrian Army officer, converted to Catholicism and their marriage was confirmed at a church. The tedious, monotonous lifestyle in Silesia, where her husband was dispatched over the long term at various military posts, dissatisfied Malwine, and therefore, in 1909, the couple moved to Vienna, where Viktor enrolled at a Gymnasium (grammar school), which he attended until 1916. At the same time, he studied the piano with Eduard Steuermann (1892–1964) and, from 1914, also took music theory and composition lessons from Josef Polnauer (1888–1969), a pupil of Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951). Besides records of these lessons, there are few surviving sources documenting his early musical activities, with one of them being a programme dating from the time of his secondary school studies, mentioning that in 1915 he conducted the school orchestra, performing works by W. A. Mozart, Franz Schubert and Johann Strauss Jr.
Following the outbreak of World War I, Ullmann passed an accelerated school-leaving exam (“Kriegsabit”), whereupon, in May 1916, he volunteered for military service. After the initial stint in Vienna, he was deployed on the Isonzo Front, Italy, where he fought in one of the war’s bloodiest battles. He received a medal for bravery, and in 1918 was appointed lieutenant. The raging war notwithstanding, Ullmann continued to compose and take a keen interest in cultural life, as attested to by the series of letters he wrote to his girlfriend Anny Wottitz in Vienna, discovered in 1998. Yet none of his early music, predominantly songs, has survived. After two years serving in the army, Ullmann returned to Vienna and, upon his parents’ request, started to study law at the Universität Wien, while concurrently devoting to music. In early 1918, he joined Arnold Schönberg’s private composition seminar, which he attended until the spring of 1919, and again began taking piano lessons from Eduard Steuermann. Moreover, he became a member of the Board of the Vienna-based Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Music Performances), founded and presided over by Schönberg.
In 1919, Ullmann gave up his university studies and married Martha Koref, his composition seminar classmate. Without further ado, the couple moved from Vienna to Prague (probably in part so as to avoid witnessing his family’s difficulties). With their relationship afflicted by long separation and the tumult caused by war, in 1920 Viktor’s parents divorced. His father came back from the front physically disabled – in return for his military merits, he was ennobled, but soon, in the wake of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s dissolution, his title was rendered null and void. Later on, Viktor Ullmann ironically reflected the fact in the signature under one of the pieces he composed at Theresienstadt: “Victoire Baron de Tannfels“. In 1920, he joined the Neues deutsches Theater (New German Theatre, NDT) in Prague, where he served as chorus master and coach under the director Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942). Two years later, he was promoted to the post of second Kapellmeister, in which he remained until 1927. He made his conducting debut at the NDT with a production of Mozart’s singspiel Bastien und Bastienne, following which he undertook the world premiere of Robert Konta’s opera Jugunde. Ullmann also participated in the first Czechoslovak performance of Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder, in 1921. As a chorus master, he collaborated with the Deutscher Männergesangsverein (German Male Choir), worked at the Prague offshoot of Schönberg’s Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen, co-operated with the Literarisch-künstlerischer Verein (Literature and Art Society), which in 1924 was integrated with the German subsection of the Czechoslovak section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM), and was involved with the Deutscher musikpädagogischer Verband (German Music-Education Association). During his time in Prague, he saw numerous premieres that made a deep impression on him, including the performance of fragments from Wozzeck by Alban Berg (1885–1935) within a philharmonic concert at the NDT in 1925 and within the Prague part of the ISCM festival in the same year, as well as the very first staging of the entire opera in Czech, at the National Theatre in 1926. These productions so captivated him that he would become an ardent admirer and champion of Berg’s music.
Besides carrying out his duties at the Neues deutsches Theater, Ullmann kept composing. While in Prague, he conceived, among other things, Seven Songs (1923), String Quartet No. 1 (1923), Oktett (1924), incidental music for Klabund’s play Der Kreidekreis (The Chalk Circle, 1924) and the first version of the Variationen und Doppelfuge über ein kleines Klavierstück von Arnold Schönberg (Variations and Double Fugue on a Small Piano Piece by Arnold Schönberg, 1925), today missing. The second version of the latter work (1929), which has survived in a copy, was later arranged by Ullmann (1933), and the orchestral version was awarded the prestigious Emil-Hertzka-Gedächtnispreis (1934). On the basis of his gaining acclaim, Ullmann was granted a one-off scholarship from the Gesellschaft zur Förderung deutscher Wissenschaft, Kunst und Literatur in der Tschechoslowakei (Society for the Advancement of German Science, Art and Literature in Czechoslovakia).
A year in a provincial town
When, in 1927, Alexander Zemlinsky moved to Berlin, Viktor Ullmann too left the Neues deutsches Theater in Prague. He joined the theatre in Ústí nad Labem (Aussig an der Elbe), an industrial town in the northwest of Bohemia, where in the 1927/28 season he served as director of the opera company. Yet his requirements for its operation and material funding – as evidenced by the list of seven new productions staged within a mere season (Otto Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, Guiseppe Verdi’s Il trovatore, Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Ernst Křenek’s Jonny spielt auf, Bedřich Smetana’s The Kiss, which was the very first opera by a Czech composer the theatre performed, W. A. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde) – gave rise to a disagreement with the municipal management, and hence he resigned after a year. Ullmann returned to Prague and, left without a permanent engagement, pursued a career as a freelance artist. In 1929, he attained his first major international success as a composer, at the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in Geneva, with the second version of his Variationen und Doppelfuge über ein kleines Klavierstück von Arnold Schönberg, as performed by Franz Langer.
At a crossroads
From 1929 to 1931, Ullmann enjoyed great acclaim as an artist, yet during this period he also experienced a spiritual and intellectual crisis. In 1930, he relocated to Zurich, where he was employed at the Züricher Schauspielhaus as a conductor and composer for a season. The scores he conceived there include (today missing) incidental music for Franz Werfel’s historical drama Das Reich des Gottes in Böhmen (The Realm of Gods in Bohemia), depicting the final hours of Prokop the Bald (or Prokop the Great), a radical Czech priest and prominent Hussite military leader. While in Zurich, Ullmann underwent psychoanalysis and further explored a variety of esoteric ways to knowledge, including I Ching and Masonic rituals, as well as anthroposophy, a system of beliefs and practices formulated by the Austrian spiritualist and scientist Rudolf Steiner (1865–1925), which he had first come across back in 1919 in Vienna, yet at the time did not embrace. In the late 1920s, however, under the influence of the Czech composer Alois Hába (1893–1973), he again put his mind to Steiner’s teachings, before becoming a convinced adherent to the philosophy defined as a pathway to developing a “conscious awareness of one’s humanity” upon visiting the Goethenaum in Dornach, Switzeland, the seat of the General Anthroposophical Society. In light of his new experience, in 1931 Ullmann joined the Anthroposophical Society of Czechoslovakia, whereupon he even put his musical career on hold and moved to Stuttgart, where he would spend two years as a bookdealer and, subsequently, the proprietor of the anthroposophical Novalis-Bücherstube.
Even though his business plan was a total failure, which, as Ullmann himself put it, “brought me back to music”, his sojourn in Germany from 1931 to 1933 was an important period of introspection. While in Stuttgart, be became friends with two foremost promoters of anthroposophy: the philosopher Hans Büchenbacher (1887–1977) and Hermann Beckh (1875–1937), a pioneering German Tibetologist. Mingling with the anthroposophy proponents in Stuttgart led to his establishing contact with the musicologist and teacher Erich Schwebsch (1889–1953) and the composer, pianist and educator Felix Petyrek (1892–1951), a professor at the local Musikhochschule, whom he had known back during his secondary school studies in Vienna. Ullmann’s personal life underwent significant changes too: on 16 April 1931 he divorced his first wife, Martha Koref, and on 8 September of that year he married Anna Winternitz, the daughter of a teacher at the Deutsche Universität in Prague, who in 1932 would give birth to their son Max.
Return to Prague
In 1933, Ullmann returned to Prague. In all likelihood, the reason for his sudden departure from Germany was not the Nazi power grab, but the fact that a lawsuit had been lodged against him because of the debts he had incurred in connection with the purchase of the Novalis bookshop. After arriving in Prague, he did not succeed in securing a permanent post, yet he would enhance the development of Czech and German musical culture as a freelance composer, conductor, writer and teacher. Ullmann gave regular lectures at the Gesellschaft für Musikerziehung (Society for Music Education), founded by Leo Kestenberg (1882–1962), and wrote articles and reviews for the Bohemia daily, and the magazines Der Auftakt, Tempo, Volk und Kultur and Goetheanum. Moreover, in Prague he began composing the opera Der Sturz des Antichrist (The Fall of the Antichrist), based on a dramatic sketch by the Swiss author Albert Steffen (1884–1963), a fellow disciple of anthroposophy. Completed in 1935, a year later the piece received the coveted Emil-Herztka-Gedächtnispreis, awarded by a jury made up of Alexander Zemlinsky, Ernst Křenek, Egon Wellesz, Karl Rankl and Lothar Wallerstein. Notwithstanding the recognition it gained, Der Sturz des Antichrist would not be performed during Ullmann’s lifetime. The opera premiered in 1995 in Bielefeld; it received its Czech premiere in 2014 in Olomouc.
In 1935, Ullmann enrolled in Alois Hába’s micro-interval music classes at the Prague Conservatory, graduating two years later with the Sonata for Quarter-tone Clarinet and Quarter-tone Piano, Op. 16. In a surviving note to Hába, he mentions his working on a sixth-tone composition, yet no more information is available. Other major works Ullmann wrote at the time include Piano Sonata No. 1, Six Songs for Soprano and Piano, Op. 17, to texts by Albert Steffen (1884–1963), and String Quartet No. 2 (unfortunately lost).
In August 1937, Ullmann first manifested signs of a mental disorder, probably related to a predisposition he had inherited from his mother (evincing itself in symptoms of schizophrenia). Yet the feelings of dissociative identity may well also have been enhanced by his passionate study of esoteric and occult literature, as well as considerable working exertion. Ullmann was briefly treated at the clinics in Gnadenwald and Hall in Tirol, but his mental health did not improve. In December 1937, he was admitted to the Sanatorium Wiesneck in Freiburg im Breisgau, which he, however, left at his own request. Dating from that period is the cycle of anthroposophical verses Der fremde Passagier. Tagebuch in Versen (The Strange Passenger. Diary in Verse), which he wrote within his therapy. (For many years, the collection was deemed to have been created at the Theresienstadt camp/ghetto.)
Trapped: Prague, 1938–1942
Amid the growing political tension and the atmosphere of fear, Ullmann strove to acquire emigration visas for his family, which encompassed his second wife Anna, the sons Max and Johannes, and the daughter Felicia. Considering various possibilities of emigration, he wrote letters to his friends and colleagues, asking for help. In April 1939, he received a new passport, yet to be able to leave he needed further papers from the authorities in the Nazi-occupied Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The Ullmanns at least succeeded in saving their two younger children – Johannes (b. 1934) and Felicia (b. 1936), who were among the hundreds of children evacuated from Czechoslovakia to the UK by Nicholas G. Winton.
Although at this difficult time Ullmann continued to compose, and during the first two years of WWII even published several works at his own expense, his personal situation kept worsening. In 1940, he buried his mother, who had spent her final months in Prague. The constant stress had a devastating impact on his second marriage. In November 1940, his wife gave birth to another son, Paul, yet in August 1941 Viktor and Anna divorced. Consequently, Ullmann, who did not possess Czechoslovak nationality (since 1919 he had lived in Prague as an Austrian citizen), became a single man, which markedly increased the risk of his being deported. In the middle of October 1941, it was generally known that the Protectorate administration was compiling lists of approximately a thousand unmarried Jewish men without Czech citizenship, who were to be moved from Prague to the Łódź Ghetto within five transports. Desperate to evade such a fate, on 15 October 1941 Ullmann married his new partner, Elisabeth Frank-Meissl. And even though he did receive notice of his deportation to Łódź, at the last minute the Prague-based Office for Jewish Community Matters issued for him a new identity card and he could stay. Yet the protection was just temporary, and on 8 September 1942 Viktor Ullmann and his wife Elisabeth were imprisoned at the Theresienstadt camp/ghetto in northwest Bohemia. Before their deportation, Ullmann had completed the opera Der zerbrochene Krug (The Broken Jug), based on a play by Heinrich Kleist (1777–1811). The piece would only premiere in 1975. Other compositions created between 1938 and 1942, including the Slavic Rhapsody and Piano Concerto, did not receive public performances during the composer’s lifetime either. Ullmann entrusted some of his works, which he published privately, including the autograph of the opera Der Sturz des Antichrist and the verse cycle Der fremde Passagier. Ein Tagebuch in Versen, for safekeeping to a friend, the Russian-born composer Alexander Waulin (1894–1976).
While incarcerated at the Theresienstadt camp/ghetto, Ullmann created over 20 works: three piano sonatas, a string quartet, arrangements of Hebrew and Yiddish songs for chorus, incidental music, the one-act opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis) and, finally, the melodrama Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (The Way of Love and Death of the Cornet Christoph Rilke), based on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), completed in 1944. Besides composing, he played the piano, conducted, wrote music reviews, taught and, as the head of the Studio for New Music, organised concerts featuring pieces by the other composers confined at Theresienstadt, particularly Pavel Haas, Hans Krása, Gideon Klein and Siegmund Schul. The 26 surviving Ullmann reviews afford a remarkable account of the musical life that thrived at the camp/ghetto. During his imprisonment there, Ullmann actually embraced his Jewish heritage for the very first time, which he brought to bear in his seventh, and last, piano sonata and choruses set to Hebrew texts. (We should bear in mind that as a child he was baptised; later on, during his first wedding ceremony, he declared himself without creed; and in the 1930s he became a Protestant.)
On 16 October 1944, Ullmann was moved from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where two days later he was killed in a gas chamber. All his wives too perished at Nazi extermination camps: Martha Koref (2 November 1894 – ? October 1942) at Treblinka, Anna Winternitz (6 May 1907 – 23 October 1944) and Elisabeth Frank-Meissl (27 September 1900 – 18 October 1944) at Auschwitz. Ullmann’s eldest son, Max, was murdered on 23 October 1944 at Auschwitz, while his youngest son, Paul, died at Theresienstadt in January 1943.
In a letter to the composer Karl Reiner (1910–1979), dating from 1938, Ullmann ponders the development of his musical style and idiom, concluding that his early pieces, primarily the first version of the Variationen und Doppelfuge über ein kleines Klavierstück von Arnold Schönberg, Op. 3 (1925), were in terms of harmonics and architecture formed by Schönberg’s approach. Yet he never applied dodecaphony thoroughly, and in 1924 began, especially under Alban Berg’s influence, to gradually disassociate himself from the Schönberg school. Ullmann was also boldly affected by Gustav Mahler and Alexander Zemlinsky, as well as the atmosphere in Vienna amid which he grew up and the milieu of bilingual Prague, a city in which he was in close contact with artists from both the German and Czech communities and in which he spent half of his life. Furthermore, he admired Josef Suk’s music and thought highly of Otakar Ostrčil, whom he mainly appreciated for his presenting the Czech premiere of Berg’s Wozzeck in 1926. A work characteristic of his second creative period is Piano Sonata No. 1, which Ullmann wrote after returning to Prague in 1933. He himself branded it as one of his “new accomplishments”, adding that its “new harmonic functions within tonality [...] may be termed polytonality”. Ullmann strove to engender a musical language that would, as he explained in the letter to Reiner, “serve as a twelve-tone system on a tonal basis [and would be] similar to a combination of major and minor keys”. During the final phase of his musical development, at Theresienstadt, Ullmann brought to bear the formal and expressive mastery he had achieved over the last years in Prague in order to meet the requirements for musical culture at the camp/ghetto. In the essay Goethe and the Ghetto, which he wrote in the final months of his life, he indicated how he mentally and aesthetically coped with the gloomy milieu at Theresienstadt. “For me, Theresienstadt has been a school of form. […] Previously, when one did not feel the impact and gravity of material life, since comfort – that spell of civilisation – subdued it, creating wonderful forms was easy. Yet Theresienstadt, where every day one must overcome matter through form, where everything musical stands in stark contrast to the environment, provides a genuine school for masters […].” In the fashion of the central character of the Artist in his opera Der Sturz des Antichrist, Ullmann deemed art to be the uttermost priority, serving to nurture the humanity in people.